When you’ve experienced trauma of any kind, the place where it happened can bring it all back to you.
Sometimes, that place is special. Sometimes, that place is a home.
When I was growing up, I was very insecure. I was embarrassed of my “italian nose” to the point where I would cover it with my hand in school. I felt ugly because I had bushy eyebrows and hairy arms and legs. I told people I wore boys clothes because they were more comfortable, better for sports. But really, I was constantly embarrassed of my body. At school, girls made fun of me for my clothes and appearance. Friends did, too.
Then I went to camp.
At camp, I found confidence in the welcoming smiles and genuine hugs of other girls my age, despite my look. I played music in front of others, played soccer with people far better than me, and I danced for the first time in my life.
Each year, I counted down the days until I got to go back to this magical place-- the place where I learned more and more each summer how to be me. Summer after summer, I made new friends, tried new things, and lived for two months by Eleanor Roosevelt’s words:
“do one thing every day that scares you.”
And I did. I ran 10 miles, I swam a triangle (farther than I’d ever swam before), I danced in public, I jumped off a high dive, and I wore my hair down.
Camp became the place that I associated with happiness. I tried to take even a small piece of this happiness, and of myself, back to school each year. For me, this was my happy place.
Flash forward to about seven years later, and the worst event of my life took place… at camp. Within my happy place.
When I left that summer, the associations of happiness and confidence and peace all started melting away. Campfires and community singing faded into lonely nights lying awake. Trees I connected to lazy sundays faded to the feeling of just breaking.
I won’t go into what happened to me, exactly. But what I will tell you is that it changed my life forever:
How I would go on to relive the experience with every subsequent partner. Wake up shaking from the bad dreams. Suffer flashbacks in intimate situations.
I’ve been using the summer to read, really read, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. While much of the book has been teaching me that it’s okay to be simply that, a bad feminist, much of it has felt like thoughts I’ve had before but haven’t had the tongue or thought process to voice properly.
Gay’s book is a compilation of various essays, all connected under a common theme. Within the section dedicated to Gender & Sexuality, Gay includes an essay entitled, The Illusion of Safety / The Safety of Illusion. Within this essay, which largely discusses the concept of “trigger warnings,” Gay writes,
“I have to remind myself of the time and distance
between then and now. I have to remind myself
that I am not the girl in the woods anymore.
I have to convince myself I never will be again.
It has gotten better over the years.
It gets better until it doesn’t.”
A couple of weeks ago, I had just started my summer. I just graduated from my Masters program. Moved into a new place. A new place with the love of my life. I recently hit a one year mark since stopping years of weekly-therapy. I was doing good.
At this point, I hadn’t heard from my abusive ex in over two years. Thus, I hadn’t thought much of him either. I dealt with the panic attacks when triggered, sure. The anxiety when alone or with my back to open space, yes. The flashbacks, okay. But the difference? I hadn’t been scared. When you have to weigh having a good year based off being scared or not? That’s a whole separate day’s writing.
“We all have history. You can think you’re over your history. You can think the past is the past. And then something happens, often innocuous, that shows you how far you are from over it. The past is always with you.” (Gay 2014)
Right at the very beginning of living my best life, I was thrown into a whirlwind of my past. For about a week, I had a hard time leaving my apartment by myself. But I also had a hard time staying at my apartment by myself. Anxiety crept in like an old, familiar enemy.
While this bump in the road to the start of a very special summer reminded me of the longevity and potency of my PTSD, it has also reminded me of how lucky I am to have such a strong and loving support system. Between my mother coming straight to my house, over an hour away, my very closest friends making the time and taking the extra step, and my partner for his endless love and support...
I’m doing good, still.
I don’t think I’ll be able to get back to my happy place to visit this summer. I’ve been reminded all over again of what happened there. Of what changed my life and myself forever.
But I’m reminded still, that because of all that, I am where I am today.
So, now, as I reflect on where I was mentally when I began writing this piece, and where I am now as I finally finish it, perhaps a new title could or should be used:
How To Find A New Home.
If we can’t leave a place behind us, I think we need to soak in the place we're in right now.